Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2006
Somehow, I had managed to live 49.5 years without paying much attention to Funny Girl. I had never seen the show or the film. I discovered that I wasn’t even that familiar with the score, which was a surprise. So the first question I had to ask myself after seeing the show at the Mac-Haydn yesterday was: “What am I seeing?”
The first thing that struck me about the show, and we are discussing the script/music/lyrics here, not this particular production, is that it is not very funny. Fanny Brice was funny, and the title of the show leads you to expect more of Brice’s comedy to be included.
The second thing I noticed was how very 1960’s the music and lyrics are. That was the style of the times – to write theatre music in the current idiom regardless of when and where the action of the show took place. Today the style is to mimic or at least pay homage to the music of the historical period and location. Funny Girl takes place in America, mostly in New York, during and immediately after the First World War, but even the Ziegfeld numbers have a mid-20th century air about them.
Indeed, Funny Girl is not a true biography of comedienne Fanny Brice (1891-1951). A little research uncovered the fact that the show was produced by Brice’s son-in-law Ray Stark while Julius “Nicky” Arnstein was still alive. Stark had to create a show that pleased his wife Frances, his brother-in-law William (Fanny and Nicky’s son who is never mentioned in the show), and his ex-con father-in-law. No wonder Nicky comes out smelling like a rose and Fanny’s story suffers. For an interesting article separating the fact from the fiction, I refer you to Funny Girl Debunked by John Kenrick.
Fanny Brice was a true star. Starting in her teens she was a hit in vaudeville and then in the Ziegfeld Follies. From the 1930’s until her untimely death at age 59 she had a top-rated radio show. Had she worked more in film or lived long enough to make the switch to television Brice would have been ensured her immortality. Unfortunately her star has faded and she is known to most modern audiences solely through the inaccurate lens of this show and its film version, and the film’s sequel Funny Lady.
Funny Girl was a big Broadway hit, running from 1964-1967. But the show is inexorably tied with the performance of Barbra Streisand in the title role, and it has never had a major revival. This is hardly surprising since it lacks a compelling plot and the score contains only two memorable songs. It is a star vehicle. The success of this show rests squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing Fanny.
At the Mac-Haydn that burden falls to Melissa Giattino, who just doesn’t sparkle brightly enough to make it work. Star quality is an elusive thing. It is more than the sum of a person’s talents, it is an intangible presence that an audience can sense the moment a performer walks on the stage. Giattino is talented and appealing, but she is not a star. It is sort of like sending the moon out on the stage to play the sun. The moon is lovely, but it won’t dry your clothes on the line or ripen your tomatoes.
Hard as she tries to keep it bottled up, Elizabeth Dowling, oddly cast as Fanny’s mother, does possess the luminescence to have carried this show. Every now and then she would make a move or sing a line and I would think: “Yes, there it is! Make that girl a star!” But just as quickly Dowling would rein herself in because she was not playing the lead and it was not her place to overshadow Giattino.
Giattino is partnered by two men – her long-time real-life dance partner Richard Schwartz as Fanny’s pal Eddie Ryan, and Mac-Haydn newcomer Richard Weidlich as Fanny’s second husband, Nick Arnstein. Like Dowling, Schwartz has to keep his light largely under a bushel playing the second banana, although he does get to shine in two specialty tap-dance numbers – an early solo that covers a costume change, and later with Giattino and the ensemble in the rousing production number Rat-a-Tat-Tat. Schwartz and Giattino have chemistry. Weidlich is not very much of a muchness. Arnstein needs to be irresistible and slightly dangerous. Weidlich is merely pleasant. When it was announced that Arnstein was in jail I thought, “Why would they lock up that nice man?” Instead I should have suspected him of being up to no good all along.
Nobody else in the cast really gets much to do. Michael Shiles is a dapper and dependable Florenz Ziegfeld. Tracey Zimmerman channels Fran Drescher as the nosy neighbor, Mrs. Strakosh. Byron DeMent gets to put on white tie and tails and sing a lovely tenor solo. And Stephen Bolte does something funny in a loud plaid suit.
Funny Girl doesn’t fit well in the confines of the Mac-Haydn, which best handles a show set in a general amorphous place like Oklahoma or Anatevka or some generic island in the South Pacific, rather than in specific locations like Mrs. Brice’s parlor, the stage of the Ziegfeld theatre, and an empty mansion on Long Island. Here there are a lot of big set changes, which means a lot of stagehands crashing round in the dark.
But director John Saunders and choreographer Karla Shook keep things moving as briskly as the set and costume changes will allow, and the cast smiles gamely through the whole endeavor. There are some bright moments in this Funny Girl. The aforementioned tap number Rat-a-Tat-Tat is an all out Mac-Haydn-style show-stopper with Giattino and Schwartz doing what they do best. And Jimm Halliday’s send-up of Ziegfeld’s notorious costuming excess in His Love Makes Me Beautiful is just hilarious. He makes the Follies girls look divinely tacky while keeping them puritanically modest, which is no mean feat. And that belt made of bagels was the funniest thing in the show – Fanny Brice would have loved it.
Robert Hamel is credited with the set, and I did like the big framed reproduction sheet music covers on the walls. They and Halliday’s costumes went as far as they could towards establishing a concrete time and setting for this production.
I am usually a big fan of unearthing the hits of yesteryear and dusting them off to see what makes them tick, but I have to say that Funny Girl is probably one show best put in mothballs. We have Barbra Streisand’s performance immortalized on film, and perhaps someday someone will create a property that really does justice to Fanny Brice. This show will never do that, which is lamentable and annoying.
Funny Girl runs through July 16 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006